University of Copenhagen: Language teaching will be crucial for the integration of Ukrainian refugees

When the many thousands of Ukrainians who come to Denmark have been given shelter, it’s time to learn the Danish language – at least if they end up staying in Denmark. Research indicates that refugees who speak the majority language are better integrated into society. Socioeconomically, early language learning can probably pay for itself in a few years.

Most refugees arrive to the host countries without prior knowledge of the main language of their new country. For the up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees that the Danish authorities are preparing to receive, language teaching will be a foundation for integration – socially and economically.

Language opens doors
The weather, the culture, the food, the language. It is an unknown world that meets the newly arrived refugee. But one of these elements – language – is of great importance in becoming familiar with the other foreign elements of a society. Refugees who become better at the language in the receiving country are better integrated into the local community.

In Denmark, refugees who acquire a more fluent Danish are less likely to leave the region where they were originally housed, and less likely to move to the largest cities in Denmark, where there are already many with an immigrant background.

Research also shows that once refugees have achieved the language level necessary for them to integrate into the local community, they are also more likely to strengthen other skills by taking an education. Language training also increases refugees’ participation in the labor force and leads over time to higher employment and income.

Economic integration
In 1999, Denmark reformed parts of the integration program, with a focus on improving and expanding language teaching. As an effect, refugees permanently increased their income and employment. The proportion of refugees working in a complex job also increased (see figure).

Complex occupations are defined as those that require a certain degree of schooling and the use of special technical knowledge or communicative skills. For instance, refugees with better language skills have to a greater extent been able to leave the cleaning industry to instead handle more complex positions, e.g. in the personal care sector

The graph shows the proportion of people employed in a complex job among refugees who have been eligible for the longer and better funded language training, which was introduced in 1999, compared to those who received training before the improvements of the language programs.

The increased language effort does not only benefit the individual refugee. A simple cost-benefit analysis shows that the expansion of Danish language teaching to refugees in 1999 has significantly strengthened the Danish economy; every dollar invested has generated a return of 15 dollars.

Proximity to education is essential
The effect of Danish teaching, however, depends on the distance between the student and the language center. A refugee in Denmark travels an average of 45 minutes by public transport to participate in language teaching. The distances to language teaching are very different, and refugees who live further from language teaching often end up being significantly less fluent in the Danish language at the end of the three-year integration program.

In the coming months, Denmark will receive Ukrainian refugees in a number corresponding to approx. two percent of the country’s population. It will be an extraordinary challenge to integrate so many people at once. Danish tuition can be easier to scale to the large number of new arrivals and a good investment in long-term integration.

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